Aoyagi (青柳) is a well known and popular restaurant opened in 1949 that specializes in Kumamoto cuisine using fresh seasonal ingredients. What is unique about this restaurant is that they recreate Edo period dishes based on a book called Kumamoto Retainers’ Book of Recipes. On top of that, you can try this ancient noble’s meal inside the famous landmark, Kumamoto Castle. Unfortunately, the castle is closed off due to damages from an earthquake in 2016. A little disappointed that we weren’t able to eat at such a unique location, we decided to visit the restaurant as it is still a great choice to try the regional cuisine.
As an aside, we opt to have lunch instead of dinner because the price was half and the portions smaller. Reservation was made the day before, but we were informed in advance that their special banquet sets were all booked.
Aoyagi is an elegant traditional Japanese restaurant. It had light coloured decor with dim lights that created a serene ambience. Unlike Japanese restaurants that I’ve been to (in Vancouver), Aoyagi had old style rooms where you kneel-sit on a tatami floor, and for people uncomfortable with that seating, it had ones with the area under the table carved out. The staff were friendly and helpful, doing their best to make us understand even with a language barrier. Note that some staff like the hostess spoke some English, while others, like the chef at the counter, did not. I didn’t see any male staff besides the chef, but all the female staff wore kimonos. For lunch, we sat at the counter instead. It was a fun experience to see the skilled chef prepare ingredients with his professional knife skills and make sushi in front of other guests at the bar.
We were provided with both a Japanese and an English menu with some photos. Aoyagi has a big menu that includes sushi, tempura, sashimi, dumplings, rice bowls and set lunches. There were several varieties of lunch sets ranging to about 1,800 to 4,000 yen each. However, it’s an adventure to order the sets because the description is next to nothing. But you could tell the gist of the content like one set has sashimi and another focused on Kumamoto cuisine. I just treated it as having omakase. Like many great restaurants, the dishes vary based on the seasonal ingredients from the region. They all came with miso soup, rice, appetizer, and a dessert. Their sizable list of drinks had helpful short descriptions.
The food was tasty, but I felt that there were minor flaws for my set lunch which I won’t go into details here. Overall I had a pleasurable experience and thoroughly enjoyed eating Kumamoto cuisine at Aoyagi. It’ll be a great reason to revisit Kumamoto and try the Honmaru Set Meal at the Kumamoto Castle once it reopens in the future.